The news of the college admission scandal in the United States left me feeling heartbroken for the thousands of children who don’t have a wealthy parent to buy them golden futures. These are the children whose parents work two or three jobs to be able to buy school supplies and put food on the table. These kids work hard to achieve their academic success. They put in hours and hours in order to achieve good grades. They study day after day to do their best on college admission tests. In order to obtain good references, these hardworking kids volunteer and do what it takes to ensure that their efforts are noticed. Yet, for a select few of other kids, success comes much easier. All it takes for some to succeed is a cheque. Which is completely and totally unfair.
What is the message that these parents are giving their kids? That due process is only applicable to those less fortunate? That it is okay to lie and cheat and shove their way to the front of the line? That integrity is an old-fashioned concept that no longer matters?
To make matters worse, some of the parents involved in this scandal went so far as to fake disabilities to obtain academic accommodations for admissions tests meant to level the playing field for students with genuine developmental disabilities. For those of us working in Special Education, like myself, this particular cheating strategy felt like a punch to the gut.
A new parenting approach has been identified as a new generation enters university and the workforce. “Helicopter” parents who hover over their kids have been replaced by a new brand of interference—“lawnmower” or “snowplow” parents. Not content to just excessively monitor their children and tell them what to do, these parents actually clear the path to ensure their kids’ lives are as easy as possible. Those involved in the bribe scandal are an example of just how far some parents will go to orchestrate their child’s (undeserved) success.
I can appreciate that parents want the best for their kids, especially now. We live in tricky times. The next generation of young people will need to tackle the incredibly complicated dilemmas of climate change, artificial intelligence, religious tolerance and freedom, and rising populism. Of course parents worry about the future and want their child to thrive. But how on earth can they do so if they’ve been raised without experiencing struggle, risk or perseverance?
A child who has a path cleared for them can’t build resilience. Without resilience any challenges that sneak past the parents and reach the child will have a far greater negative impact to the child because they have no experience handling adversity.
Lawnmower/Snowplow parenting is bad for kids. Instead, we need to teach our children to be honest and hardworking. They need to know that there are absolutely no short-cuts. They will need to be taught and encouraged to care about those in our community who are less fortunate. They will need to deeply and authentically understand that every single person is equal in value and worth and that everyone has the capacity to contribute to the greater good. Our kids will need to become “integrity-enriched adult problem-solvers” in order to meet the greatest demands that any generation has had to meet.
To do this, they need to experience challenges and learn how to bounce back after they fail. Growing up is about learning to continuously adapt to new and more difficult situations. When parents deprive their children of opportunities to practice these skills, their parenting is actually detrimental to their kids. In fact, what they are communicating is: “I do not think you are capable of handling this on your own.”
How can you step back and let your child learn that they are capable? Whenever possible, give them authentic and meaningful opportunities to make decisions. You can start when kids are young by letting them decide what to wear; older ones can choose which restaurants to go to for family meals. If your child isn’t used to having choice, you can ease into the sharing of power by limiting the possibilities to two to three choices—“Do you want to do this or that?”—and gradually empower them to make more decisions of increasing importance.
Whether or not your children are aware of the bribing scandal, the topic provides an opportunity for you to pause and consider, in a non-judgmental way, whether you have any lawnmower parent tendencies. It’s also an excellent reminder to check in with your kids and have a discussion about integrity and your family’s values. The world will never be a fair place, but we can raise our children to not only strive for a great life, but also to earn it.
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist, UVic professor and mother. She is the CEO & Founder of FamilySparks and the author of Kids, Sex and Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age.